English usage controversies

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In the English language, there are grammatical constructions that many native speakers use unquestioningly yet certain writers call incorrect. Differences of usage or opinion may stem from differences between formal and informal speech and other matters of register, differences among dialects (whether regional, class-based, or other), and so forth. Disputes may arise when style guides disagree with each other, or when a guideline or judgement is confronted by large amounts of conflicting evidence or has its rationale challenged.


Some of the sources that consider some of the following examples incorrect consider the same examples to be acceptable in dialects other than Standard English or in an informal register; others consider certain constructions to be incorrect in any variety of English. On the other hand, many or all of the following examples are considered correct by some sources.

It's me again.
  • Using "I" vs. "me" in the oblique case, e.g., "He gave the ball to Bob and I" instead of "He gave the ball to Bob and me". This is often called a hypercorrection, since it is perceived as related to avoidance of the stigmatized incorrect use of the oblique form.[8] See Between you and I.
  • The validity of aren't as a negative first-person singular conjunction for to be in interrogative uses – e.g., "Aren't I the one you were talking about?"[9]
  • The grammatical means for marking counterfactuality – e.g., "I wish I were/was an Oscar Meyer wiener" and "If the pandemic didn't happen/hadn't happened".
  • Whether to use who or whom in various contexts[citation needed]
  • The use of less or fewer with count nouns[10]
  • Double negatives – e.g., "We don't need no education"[11]
  • Certain double modals – e.g., "You might could do it" – not considered standard, but used for example in Southern American English[12]
  • Double copula[13] – e.g., "What has to happen is, is that the money has to come from somewhere"[14]
  • Preposition stranding – e.g., "You have nothing to be afraid of" (vs. "You have nothing of which to be afraid") – criticized by grammarians in the 1600s by analogy with Latin grammar and by some teachers since, though many have always accepted it as part of standard English[15]
  • Distinction or lack of it between the past and past participle forms of the verb – e.g. "I should have went" and "I done that yesterday".
  • Order of quoted punctuation marks, i.e., American style ("Many dreams were characterized as 'raw,' 'powerful,' and 'evocative'") vs. British style ('Many dreams were characterised as "raw", "powerful" and "evocative"'). Some American authorities (such as the APA and CMS) require the former, while others (such as the LSA) allow, prefer, or require the latter.
  • Whether the verbs open/close to denote turn on/turn off can be used as English collocations (i.e. "Open the lights, please" for "Turn on the lights, please"). The expression is a metaphrase and is common among nonnative English speakers of Hebrew, Croatian, Filipino, French, Thai, Chinese, Greek, Italian descent, and also among French Canadians (or speakers of Quebec English), where "open" and "close" for "on" and "off" are used instead. This construction is grammatically correct but only out of context. The calquing and linguistic transfer make this construction foreign to other English speakers.[16]

Several proscriptions concern matters of writing style and clarity but not grammatical correctness:

For an alphabetical list of disputes concerning a single word or phrase, see List of English words with disputed usage.

Factors in disputes[edit]

The following circumstances may feature in disputes:

Myths and superstitions[edit]

There are a number of alleged rules of unclear origin that have no rational basis or are based on things such as misremembered rules taught in school. They are sometimes described by authorities as superstitions or myths. These include rules such as not beginning sentences with "and"[20]: 69  or "because"[20]: 125–6  or not ending them with prepositions.[21]: 617  See common English usage misconceptions.

No central authority[edit]

Unlike some languages, such as French (which has the Académie française), English has no single authoritative governing academy, so assessments of correctness are made by "self-appointed authorities who, reflecting varying judgments of acceptability and appropriateness, often disagree."[22]: 14 


While some variations in the use of language correlate with age, sex, ethnic group, or region, others may be taught in schools and be preferred in the context of interaction with strangers. These forms may also gain prestige as the standard language of professionals, politicians, etc., and be called Standard English (SE), whereas forms associated with less educated speakers may be called nonstandard (or less commonly substandard) English.[22]: 18 


The prescriptivist tradition may affect attitudes toward certain usages and thus the preferences of some speakers.[22]: 14 


Because of the stigma attached to violating prescriptivist norms, speakers and writers sometimes incorrectly extend usage rules beyond their scope in attempting to avoid mistakes.[22]: 14 

Classical languages[edit]

Prescriptivist arguments about various English constructions' correctness have sometimes been based on Latin grammar.[23]: 9 

Analogy with other constructions[edit]

It is sometimes argued that a certain usage is more logical than another, or that it is more consistent with other usages, by analogy with different grammatical constructions. For instance, it may be argued that the accusative form must be used for the components of a coordinate construction where it would be used for a single pronoun.[23]: 9 

Speakers and writers frequently do not consider it necessary to justify their positions on a particular usage, taking its correctness or incorrectness for granted. In some cases, people believe an expression to be incorrect partly because they also falsely believe it to be newer than it really is.[24]

Prescription and description[edit]

It is often said that the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches is that the former prescribes how English should be spoken and written and the latter describes how English is spoken and written, but this is an oversimplification.[23]: 5  Prescriptivist works may contain claims about the incorrectness of various common English constructions, but they also deal with topics other than grammar, such as style.[23]: 6  Prescriptivists and descriptivists differ in that, when presented with evidence that purported rules disagree with most native speakers' actual usage, the prescriptivist may declare that those speakers are wrong, whereas the descriptivist will assume that the usage of the overwhelming majority of native speakers defines the language, and that the prescriptivist has an idiosyncratic view of correct usage.[23]: 7–8  Particularly in older prescriptivist works, recommendations may be based on personal taste, confusion between informality and ungrammaticality,[23]: 6  or arguments related to other languages, such as Latin.[23]: 9 

Different forms of English[edit]

English internationally[edit]

English is spoken worldwide, and the Standard Written English grammar generally taught in schools around the world will vary only slightly. Nonetheless, disputes can sometimes arise: for example, it is a matter of some debate in India whether British, American, or Indian English is the best form to use.[25][26][failed verification]

Regional dialects and ethnolects[edit]

In contrast to their generally high level of tolerance for the dialects of other English-speaking countries, speakers often express disdain for features of certain regional or ethnic dialects, such as Southern American English's use of y'all, Geordies' use of "yous" as the second person plural personal pronoun, and nonstandard forms of "to be" such as "The old dock bes under water most of the year" (Newfoundland English) or "That dock be under water every other week" (African-American Vernacular English).

Such disdain may not be restricted to points of grammar; speakers often criticize regional accents and vocabulary as well. Arguments related to regional dialects must center on questions of what constitutes Standard English. For example, since fairly divergent dialects from many countries are widely accepted as Standard English, it is not always clear why certain regional dialects, which may be very similar to their standard counterparts, are not.


Different constructions are acceptable in different registers of English. For example, a given construction will often be seen as too formal or too informal for a situation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1] lists "one; anyone; people in general" as a definition without qualification that it is non-standard
  2. ^ [2] Archived 30 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine requires replacing "you" with another word unless it means "you the reader".
  3. ^ Robert Allen, ed. (2002). "Split infinitive". Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926). Oxford University Press. pp. 547. ISBN 978-0-19-860947-6. "No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c [19th century]: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned."
  4. ^ "Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? – OxfordWords blog". oxforddictionaries.com. 5 January 2012.
  5. ^ University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.
  6. ^ Quinion, Michael. "Double Possessive". World Wide Words. Retrieved 19 May 2009.
  7. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 459. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
  8. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 463. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
  9. ^ ""Aren't I?" vs. "Ain't I" Usage Note". dictionary.com. Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  10. ^ "less, fewer". Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (2nd ed.). Merriam-Webster. 1995. p. 592. ISBN 978-0-87779-132-4.
  11. ^ Fowler, H.W.; Gowers, Ernest (1965). Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 384–386. ISBN 019281389-7. Negative mishandling.
  12. ^ Kenneth G. Wilson, "Double Modal Auxiliaries", The Columbia Guide to Standard American English Archived 7 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine, 1993.
  13. ^ "Main Home". Current Publishing. 24 September 2013.
  14. ^ Pelish, Alyssa (17 September 2013). "Are You a Double-Is-er?" – via Slate.
  15. ^ "Can you end a sentence with a preposition? – OxfordWords blog". oxforddictionaries.com. 28 November 2011.
  16. ^ Scott, Marian (12 February 2010). "Our way with words". The Gazette. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
  17. ^ McArthur, Tom, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, pp. 752–753. Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-214183-X The dangling modifier or participle
  18. ^ The Elements of Style, 1918
  19. ^ Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition, (1983): p. 233.
  20. ^ a b Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Penguin. 2002. ISBN 978-0877796336.
  21. ^ Fowler, H.W.; Burchfield, R.W. (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198610212.
  22. ^ a b c d Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman. ISBN 978-0582517349.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
  24. ^ Freeman, Jan (9 October 2005). "Losing our illusions". The Boston Globe.
  25. ^ Hohenthal, Annika (5 June 2001). "The Model for English in India – the Informants' Views". Archived from the original on 7 July 2006.
  26. ^ Limerick, James (2002). "English in a global context". Victoria University.

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Lane Greene (2011). You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity. ISBN 978-0553807875.